Five years ago this month we met Marilyn, a nature center docent from Door County, Wisconsin. Probably in her 70s, she was one of the campers on a Road Scholar tour we took based out of the Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyoming.
It was our inaugural experience with the outdoor travel club. But Marilyn already had 15 stamps in her Road Scholar passport. She was impressive, and the way she described Door County prompted me write in my journal that night that upon retirement we should be sure to make Door County a destination.
Last week we did just that.
We started in Sturgeon Bay, a 250-mile deviation south from our perimeter trek along the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I asked at the visitor center if anyone knew Marilyn. The woman at the front desk, who said she’d worked there for 18 years, didn’t.
I knew it was a long shot. There are several nature and visitors centers scattered throughout the 2,300-square-mile county, Wisconsin’s largest. I don’t even know if Marilyn is still volunteering – or getting stamps in her Road Scholar passport. She’ll probably never know the joy she inspired last week.
The highlight was two back-to-back days where we did everything we like best. We took a ranger-led hike along the Eagle Terrace Cliffs in Peninsula State Park, spent an afternoon immersed in our favorite putter projects at the campsite, attended a fabulous musical theater production under the stars and bicycled around Washington Island just across the “Death’s Door” strait that connects Green Bay to Lake Michigan.
Here’s a view from our lunch spot at the tiny Jackson Harbor marina on Washington Island.
Oh yeah, and we visited Brussels, Namur and Luxemburg – without boarding a plane. Who knew that the largest Walloon-Belgian settlement in the U.S. was in the three-county region around Door County?
We spent more than an hour at the heritage center at the Namur Belgian-American National Historic Landmark and I walked away with two dozen photos to share with G’s brother, Luc, who lives in Spa, Belgium and G’s son, Laurent, who lives in Phoenix – both of whom still speak a bit of the dying Walloon dialect.
Our visit to this area started, however, with a flat tire on the trailer, our first of the trip. Fortunately, it happened at a Walmart parking lot in Sturgeon Bay and there was an excellent tire-repair shop nearby. We had to special order the new tire to get the eight-ply we prefer, and that took a couple of days to arrive, but no matter. We have a good spare (two, actually) and we wanted to spend some time in the area anyway.
Pas de problème.
And of course we ate well here (and everywhere). Here is G cooking up one of his signature campsite dinners in the forest at Peninsula State Park.
This particular dinner started with shrimp cocktail.
Dinner progressed to pork chops on a bed of lentils, bacon bits, carrots and celery.
One morning, ranger Andrew, a state naturalist with the Department of Natural Resources, guided us and 13 others on a two-hour hike along the spectacular Eagle Trail. The rocky and gnarled path winds its way across the top of 150-foot-high rocky bluffs …
… and descends steeply to the shoreline where it meanders along the lapping waters of Green Bay …
… before ascending back up to a panoramic viewpoint along the park drive.
Thank goodness for the remnants of the CCC-constructed steps and foot bridges in so many state and national parks across the country. Over the years, we’ve climbed, hiked and crawled over them from Texas to Michigan, Arizona to Virginia. The men who muscled them into place in the 1930s couldn’t possibly have imagined how their work during the depths of the Great Depression would enrich the lives of so many for generations to come.
Reveling in the out-of-doors in places like this makes me feel close to my father, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 2010 but generously remembered the National Park Service in his will. Mom’s an outdoor enthusiast, too. Married in Ohio, they honeymooned in a tent on Point Sublime on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1953. Nearly a decade later, we moved from Washington, D.C. to Tucson and camped at the Gilbert Ray Campground in the Saguaro National Park for six weeks before buying a house.
I don’t have a picture of my dad at a campsite handy on this trip, but here’s one of my faves of my mother.
The rocky bluffs we’re traversing on this particular day are part of the Niagara escarpment, a 650-mile geologic formation that runs from Wisconsin to New York. It is critical habitat for towering trees, delicate ferns and rare land snails. The average cedar lives about 80 years; ranger Andrew tells us some of the cedar trees in this park are nearly 600 years old.
This forest is diverse: firs, maple, ash, oak, hemlock, beech, birch, elm, cedar, spruce. (At our campsite, the crab-apple tree did it’s best to drop its fruit on our heads several times during our stay.) Naturalists like Andrew work to protect it against the ravages of Beech Bark Disease and the Emerald Ash Borer.
The pileated woodpecker is an endangered species, but we saw several who call this park home. Reaching 14 inches tall, they are black and white and wear a distinctive red beret. Sometimes you can see them turn their head sideways next to the tree trunk before pecking away at it; they are listening for the existence of tasty bugs and beetles inside.
The holes they bore into the trees like the one in the photo below actually help to save the tree, not destroy it as appearances might suggest. The holes mean the bird is eating the bugs and beetles that would otherwise kill the tree.
Suddenly, G’s cell phone rings. In the middle of the forest. We’ve not had reliable cell service for weeks on the country’s northern tier and now he gets a call? “Likely scam” flashes the screen. He grimaces; I chuckle.
Did you know the NFL is studying the pileated woodpecker? Actually, the membrane that protects its brain from being damaged by the force of the bird’s pounding against tree trunks. According to ranger Andrew, the secret to safer helmets might lie within this bird brain.
Favorite putter projects
After the hike we pedaled back to our campsite. Lunch was a delicious turkey linguini. Then we spent the afternoon doing what each of us likes best.
Me? I wrote in my journal. And watched the hummingbirds at our two traveling feeders.
Georges? He took every single item out of the car, cleaned the car, and then put every single item back in the car – in a re-organized fashion.
Nothing OCD about my husband. No-siree-bob.
Here’s a pic of G a few days later, washing the solar panels on the top of the Casita at our boondocking campsite at Blueberry Hill in Minnesota’s Beltrami Island State Forest.
The man cannot sit still.
No complaints here, though. In the Wisconsin reorganization exercise G found the blue vinyl zipper bag which contains our foreign money (Canadian, Euro, etc.) – and which had been “missing” for several weeks.
It is positively amazing how we can continue to “misplace” items on a trip like this and drive ourselves crazy looking for them. (I’ve actually compiled a list on my phone of our “lost” and “found” items.) We’re talking about very limited space, after all – just a car and a small trailer. Why is this so complicated?
Theater under the stars
That evening, just before sunset, we pedaled a mile or so to the Northern Sky Theater, the park’s under-the-stars amphitheater, which boasts nightly musicals with Equity actors and production. (The Chicago Tribune has called Northern Sky Theater “one of the most exceptional professional troupes” in the country… “)
We thoroughly enjoyed the world premier of Boxcars. It’s set in Wisconsin in the 1930s and tells the inspiring story of a young boy named Charlie who – against his father’s wishes – befriends two hobos camped out on the edge of his family‘s property. His experiences reveal the triumph that comes from one human coming to the aid of another in trying times.
(Waiting in line at the entrance, we availed ourselves of a few squirts from the myriad bottles of free bug spray at the guest counter; we were already coated in our special rosemary-lotion concoction. We went home after the play with only one or two additional mosquito bites. Not bad for a summer night in Wisconsin!)
We hung around afterward for the “post show after glow” around-the-campfire discussion with three of the actors, including the precocious 10-year-old star of the show. Then we pedaled home in the dark with our headlights and headlamps.
What a perfect day.
Biking the island
The next morning we drove 40 minutes to the ferry at the northern end of Kewaunee Peninsula, parked, grabbed our bikes and enjoyed the six-mile scoot over to Washington Island, just a stone’s throw inside Wisconsin from the Michigan state line in the middle of the big lake.
The commute is short and smooth. Hard to imagine that this is the infamous Porte des Morts strait, which translates roughly as Death’s Door and is how Door County got its name.
Washington Island is the second-oldest Icelandic settlement in North America. (First oldest? Newfoundland in Canada.) You can ride special hypo-allergenic Icelandic horses here. Still, most of the people on the island and in Door County in general are of Norwegian, Swedish or Danish descent. For generations, the main trades have been farming, logging, fishing, as well as the growth and production of Christmas trees and maple syrup.
We spent the day pedaling around nearly the entire island. About midway, we stopped for a beer at Jackson Harbor Soup on the northeastern shore.
We liked it so much we decided to stay for lunch. The “Wrecked Iris” panini (named for the deliberate running aground of the 1866 wooden two-masted scow-schooner in the harbor in 1913 after a long and venerable career) was great. So was the French onion soup and homemade fresh cherry pie.
Belgian Heritage Center
We’d started our visit with a boondocking overnight near the ship channel that connects Sturgeon Bay with Lake Michigan about half way up the peninsula from the city of Green Bay. This was the channel cut years ago to spare ships the dangers (and distance) of Porte des Morts strait.
We spent the evening and the next morning watching the ships go in and out, including a large Coast Guard vessel heading out at sunset headed across Lake Michigan toward lakes Huron and Erie on its way to New York.
It’s amazing how few of the pleasure craft honor the posted be 5 mph speed limit.
We concluded our Door County visit with a stop at the Walloon Belgian historic landmark, 3,500 acres of a mostly intact concentration of buildings, farmsteads and landscape features relating to the Walloon Belgian American settlement of the Door Peninsula. A local highway was actually rerouted to avoid bisecting this region.
We spent about an hour perusing the exhibits and talking to host Allen, whose son is now president of the center. We watched a couple of the video interviews with descendants of the Belgians who settled this area, including several who reminisced about coming from Walloon-speaking homes and attending a one-room schoolhouse here unable to speak English.
Today some 20% of Door County residents are of Belgian descent.
Thank you, Marilyn, for recommending we visit your beloved county. I wish we could have found you to make this toast in person.
Here’s hoping you feel the spirit of our gratitude wherever you are….
And now we’re off to resume our perimeter trek, headed to Minnesota….